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Braun Consulting News
News on Personnel, Labor Relations and Benefits

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Top Aging Workforce - Employer Issues

We all know it is coming. A quick glance at the appropriate statistics will show that the number of people in our workforce who are 55 years and older will be dramatically increasing every year.

In the year 2000, 23 percent of the U.S. population was in the 45-84 age group, while it is projected that by 2010 this portion will rise to 37.2 percent. It will continue to increase another 2 percent to an estimated total of 39 percent by 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also estimates that by 2015 the number of workers 55 and older will be around 30 million - which is nearly 20 percent of the total labor force. Today, this age group comprises only 12 percent of the total labor force.

Consider that 70 percent of today's workers expect to work after retirement, according to a new survey from Pew Research. Similarly, a Merrill Lynch survey reports that about 76 percent of baby boomers claim that they want to continue working in some capacity after they reach retirement age.

People plan on working longer, as they live longer.

Put all of this together and you can see that the job site will have a greater number of older workers than ever before with each passing year.

Employers who are looking ahead are preparing for this changing situation. They are already adjusting to meet the needs of this important segment of the workforce.

For example, employers are training recruiters and hiring managers to avoid any possible age discrimination charges, as well as adapting to the differing needs of older workers in other ways.

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Checkmark Graphic Myths and Realities of Aging Workforce

There are a few general myths about older workers and the aging workforce that can be dispelled with a different perspective on reality.

First, there is a myth that young people are more productive, and that older people are less so.

It may be true that younger people seem to work more quickly, or appear to be quicker to move and get things done. However, some feel that they can tend to make more mistakes than older people. In job assignments that require more thoughtful conclusions and smart solutions, older people are sometimes considered to be more effective than younger people in many situations.

Second is the myth that younger people will be around longer and are therefore a better long term investment for employers.

Though young people may have more longevity ahead of them in terms of lifespan, this fact is offset by the tendency of younger people to change jobs more frequently. Often you may be training a younger person for their next job.

For example, the average 20- to 30-year-old worker changes jobs every three years. The average 40-plus worker changes jobs up to about every 15 years. In reality employers may get more years back by retraining and investing in a 45-year-old than a 25-year-old.

And finally, there is the myth that young people are healthier and that older people have more physical problems and illnesses.

Of course it is true that older people are more inclined to have health problems, but younger people actually hurt themselves more on the job and miss more days of work due to illness than their older counterparts. They are also more likely to show up to work intoxicated and are more likely to be distracted.

If you look at physical strength or speed and quickness as the primary measures of productivity then younger people may be more productive in that sense, but if you broaden your definition of productivity to include experience, loyalty and being responsible, then older workers often equal or exceed the younger generation of workers in overall productivity.

Of course these are somewhat broad generalizations, but they are presented here to offer an alternative view to the more common misperceptions that younger employees are a better investment, or more productive than older employees.

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Checkmark Graphic Healthcare and Physical Fitness Issues

If you think about it, in terms of physical capacity, 40-year-olds and 60-years-olds are not too dramatically different. Younger people may appear to have more actual physical strength, but this is often more of a lifestyle issue than age. You probably wouldn't have to look very far to find a 60-year-old who is more physically fit than some (or most) 40-year-olds, or even younger.

Most of the illnesses that we associate with older people tend to occur in the mid- to late 70s and early 80s. Many 50 to 70 year old people are quite active and physically fit, and conversely many 30 to 50 year old people may be sedentary and have unhealthy lifestyles.

It depends on the lifestyle of the person, not the age that they are.

If they were raised on fast food and video games, younger people don't necessarily represent a healthier demographic. If you look at the obesity and the drug dependency and the anxiety levels of young people, it is not easy to make the case that they are that much more physically fit than an older worker. There are many 30-year-olds who are overweight or out of shape, which reveals a different set of risks entirely.

If your job requirements include heavy physical labor or lifting then older people may be at a disadvantage. But if your workforce engages in normal ranges of physical activity then the differences between older and younger people tends to diminish.

It is being demonstrated more as time goes on that healthcare and physical fitness issues are related more to lifestyle and attitude than to the chronological age of a person.

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Checkmark Graphic Retaining Older Workers

Older workers may not want to work as many hours as younger workers and they may want more variety and flexibility in their duties and schedules.

However, this same trend is shown in studies relating to the changing attitudes of younger workers, so there may not be as great a difference here as there used to be. Retaining older workers is much the same as younger workers, with only a few differences

There is a new model for older workers now that is sometimes referred to as "flexible retirement".

This means that the schedule may involve scaling down to three or four work days per week. It may also include rotating back and forth between work and time off, such as having six months on the job and six months off - or some variation of that.

People in the future may be more likely to want to switch positions and responsibilities. This may be more of a factor for older workers, but not necessarily so. Perhaps someone who has been in the bookkeeping department would like to try working in the training department. They may want to work in one department for 6 months or a year, and then change to another department - after they get back from their 3 month vacation.

There are many configurations of flexible retirement, and companies such as IBM, HP, CVS and Apple Computer are already creating a new generation of flexible retirement programs.

However, there are rules from the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, the Internal Revenue Code and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act that make true flexible retirement difficult for most employees.

In response, companies are beginning to come up with some very creative solutions to working with (and around) these requirements.

As it becomes more necessary and as the demand increases, there will be more options and solutions for older employees to take their retirement in stride as they become a growing factor in the workplace.

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Checkmark Graphic Age Discrimination Claims in Hiring

Along with increasing numbers of older workers in the workforce, there is a corresponding increase of older workers applying for all sorts of jobs in the job market.

Employers should prepare for more age discrimination claims coming from the hiring process as the labor pool grows older.

Unsuccessful job candidates will be increasingly aware of any age discrimination, and may be alert to those conditions with an eye to leveling the playing field. Most will be aware of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act which protects workers age 40 and older.

Courts and juries are also aging, so it is possible that they may be less inclined to be sympathetic to employers and more sympathetic to potential victims of discrimination based on age as time goes on.

We discuss some methods further in this article that can reduce the chance of employers being caught unawares in an age discrimination law suits.

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Checkmark Graphic Interview Traps and Pitfalls

Many HR departments have correctly trained recruiters and hiring managers to avoid direct references to age, but often potentially discriminatory language may take more subtle forms.

These are sometimes known as "oblique references" to age. They are not direct, but the implication is just as damaging.

For example, the interviewer may ask the applicant if they would mind working under a "younger" supervisor. Or they may ask the applicant if they would have "enough energy" to work longer hours where the workdays for the position may be longer.

A sensitivity to these issues and the fine nuances of language may be asking too much of an interviewer under normal circumstances, so a possible solution to this potential hazard is to use a script of questions and to ask only those questions.

Another solution may be to have multiple interviewers, where each scores the applicant individually.

In any case, if the candidate makes references to age those comments should not be recorded or responded to. That is, "no reply - no notation".

Two other areas that may cause problems in the interview phase involving older workers are around the issues of "over qualification" or the "inability to adapt". These areas should probably be omitted in the interview phase.

If an employer cannot articulate a valid reason why over qualification is a problem, then there is a high risk associated rejecting a candidate on that basis.

And finally, adapting to a rapidly changing environment may be a factor in a work setting, but should always be approached in a way that is tied directly to the specifics of the job description or requirements, not as a broad based generalization that could be misconstrued as an age-based question.

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Checkmark Graphic Tips and Action Points for the Hiring Process

To minimize the risk of age discrimination claims here are a few tips and action points for the hiring process.

  • Consider sticking to a more scripted interview process.
    Have a list of questions pertinent to that position, and stick to them for all candidates. Develop a series of questions that are the best possible for the job opening in question, and stick to them.

  • Maintain a diverse workforce on the jobsite.
    The best defense in hiring claims is to actually have a diverse workforce and be able to show that this is your normal practice on the jobsite, not just on paper.

  • Make your recruiting efforts broad based.
    Be careful about how you target potential applicant pools and avoid recruiting efforts that may yield a disproportionate number of young applicants. For example, if you mainly recruit at college campuses or shopping malls, or do your advertising in media aimed at a young audience, you should broaden that field to access potentially older applicants as well.

  • Have real diversity in those involved in the recruiting and hiring process.
    Demonstrate diversity in your workforce by including a diverse group of people who do your hiring and recruiting.

  • Don't bother interviewing people you never plan on hiring.
    Carefully screen and analyze applications before you bring in candidates and don't interview people you don't plan on hiring just to play with diversity requirement numbers in applications and interviews.

If you need assistance in your workplace to accommodate a growing number of older workers you can contact Braun Consulting Group for help on your jobsite or in your recruiting processes. Just click here.

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Employer Briefs Next Page

The Contents of this News Letter are intended for general information
and should not be construed as legal advise or opinion.
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